Siem Reap 4: Forest Temples

When people talk about “the forest temple” of Siem Reap, they mean the BIG one. The great, mysterious ruin way out in the forest:

“Beng Meala is genuinely uncleared—the real thing for would-be explorers. You will need the services of a local guide, and by the end of the visit you will be happy to pay for being taken around the tortuous route. This involves clambering through small spaces and along roof tops…”

So says the glossy, erudite, 200-page guide book (Ancient Angkor) foisted on me by a desperate hawker.

A massive, ruined, ancient stone temple, deep in the forest; shrouded in mystery; its builder and history, unknown; its religious orientation, ambiguous. Perfect for a lover of both wild nature, and great sacred Mysteries—i.e., for me. I was so looking forward to this adventure! But my bum knee would seem to make such a challenging exploration impossible.

Oh, wait! No worry, the guidebook is out of date (that’s why the local hawkers were able to stock up on them cheap). Access ramps have been built to make it easy (well, at least reasonable) for tourists to traverse the rubble safely. Too far for a tuk-tuk, but Mondol can borrow his sister’s Lexus for the road trip.

That’s the good news. The bad news: it’s now a major tourist magnet, with busloads of (mainly Chinese) visitors crowding the walkways. So once again, we are mere tourists, two of many, not mystical pilgrims as we would prefer. Still…

10 naga
The 7-headed cobra, or Naga, guards the beiginning of the main entryway
11 rubble front
Approaching through great blocks of fallen walls

13 rubble

The original doorways are still almost all blocked by fallen roofs or other structures, so there is a lot of climbing over walls. Inside, the couryard is impenetrably filled with huge blocks of fallen stone, just as described in the guidebook.

25 interior rubble

Weirdly, it appears that the forest has grown on top of the walls, sending roots down to the floor, sometimes two stories below. It’s a remarkable sight.

49 tree on wall15 trees on wall

38 roots on wall

Despite the ruined state of the structure, some of the ancient beauty is still clear. (High resolution image, zoom in for detail)

18 good gate

At one point, the pathway crosses a rooftop covering a narrow passageway, then goes down a ladder to enter the (completely dark) passage at ground level. At least, I think it was ground level. Hard to tell, in this three-dimensional labyrinth!

I wish I could coverse with the unknown people who designed this remarkable monument. But even with all the drawbacks, it’s an impressive and memorable visit.

The next most important “forest temple” is Banteay Srei. It’s closer to the Angkor site, and officially part of it, but still far removed from the ancient metropolis. It’s much smaller than the royal temples we have seen, because it wasn’t built by a king, but by a scholar. It’s noted for lavish and especially fine art, well-preserved due to the high quality of stone used.

Big pictures:

Some fine detail work (click to expand}:

And finally, when I explore the less-visited south side of the temple, I’m surprised to see these creatures guarding the entrance. Unlike anything else I’ve seen. My first thought is that they just arrived from ancient Egypt, gods with stylized animal heads. Then I thought of the flying monkeys of Oz.

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Oh, and don’t ignore the lovely lady carved into the wall behind the figures on the left!

We had originally planned four days of touring, but with my reduced mobility we decide to make it three, with a day to rest. So that’s all I have for this trip. More than enough, I think.

2 thoughts on “Siem Reap 4: Forest Temples

  1. Okay, this is starting to bug me. Who WERE these people? When were these cities and temples built, and why? Were they all built by one people or culture, or many? They remind me, of course, of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, but they’re so much bigger, and more elaborately decorated, obviously created by people so completely different. Above all, maybe, why were they abandoned and left for the forest to reclaim? What happened? It’s the kind of thing that makes a history buff a little nuts. Got to be an amazing story there- or a lot of them.


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